09/13/2012 11:52 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

The Mompetitors: Can't Stop, Can't Win

I grew up in the '60s and '70s, when motherhood was a different ball game. No one suggested that my mom do half the things that mothers feel compelled to do in 2012. For example, you did not sit for hours outside your child's class, day after day, until she was fully adjusted to nursery school, or pack lunches as long as possible to minimize her exposure to chicken nuggets or crisscross the state on weekends so she could compete with the junior traveling whatever team. These are newer ideas, and good ideas, but try to do them all and you might just drop in your tracks. Case in point: Mom's Weekend at my daughter Julia's camp.

Three weeks into the month-long session, mothers were invited to come up and spend the weekend with their girls. It was a major selling point for my 12-year-old, so of course I promised to attend. How could I possibly say no to what camp lit described as "a shared experience between mother and daughter that is cherished for years to come"? I already felt guilty about looking forward to the two weeks where both Julia and her younger sister, Evie, would be at sleep-away camp. My husband and I would have all that time to work late without watch-checking, see friends and movies and generally comport ourselves like childless people.

That fantasy began to crumble when we synched up our schedules: The first week I was closing a fall issue of the magazine I edit and the second my husband was on the road for business. The single, precious weekend in between? You guessed it. Mom's Weekend.

Nevermind, I was excited to see Julia. So I focused on the info packet I'd been sent, full of lists, rules and pointers. Some of what I learned:

• Most moms choose to sleep in tents on the camp's grounds with their daughters. If I preferred a bed, my child would sleep in the bunkhouse and I would be housed separately. Clearly, this option was for slacker moms, less-than-dedicated moms. I scrambled to rent a tent, sleeping bags and (alarmingly thin) pads.

• Mom's Weekend would officially begin at 1:00 p.m. on Friday. I could pull in later, which made the most sense for me, as our issue was going to press that day. But all of Julia's friends' moms were taking the entire day off to arrive at the starting gun. I envisioned my daughter's tear-stained face, looking out for me, the Dead Last Mom to arrive. My decision made, I worked feverishly to finish by Thursday night.

• Alcohol was strictly forbidden.

With a nagging sense of having forgotten something (vodka, perhaps?) I reached camp at three o'clock in a steady downpour. When I tracked Julia down in Arts and Crafts she smiled, eyes gleamy with tears, and gave me a huge hug. This was the first of many lovely moments with my daughter. Others included: watching Julia and her bunkmates zoom around the dining hall setting and clearing, all without being asked; meeting her delightful counselors; observing her cool moves in a modern dance class; exchanging the words "You're beautiful!" in yoga (sounds corny, but no one needs those words more than tweenage girls and forty-something moms). I found my throat constricted with surprising emotion every so often, and noticed that moms around me seemed similarly verklempt.

But I was emotional, in part, because I was exhausted. It took a lot out of me to drive three hours to camp, assemble a tent, rouse by seven, complete middle-aged-lady ablutions in the shower cabin, get by on weak coffee, participate in activities designed for young bodies, bellow camp songs and cheers at top volume, and seem alive/awake/alert/enthusiastic the entire time. I think some other mothers felt the same, but no one wanted to voice dissent. The fear: That other moms might judge you or that your daughter might feel rejected, deprioritized.

At one point, I was on the water trampoline, bouncing with Julia, when another mother/daughter duo joined us. The mom struggled a bit to climb onto this giant contraption, and when her little girl begged her to jump, said, "Honey, I'm worried about hurting my neck again." Nevertheless, she bounced gingerly and leapt off into the water. I thought I saw genuine fear in her eyes; I know I was scared for her. Later, at the post-dinner activity, the counselors ran us all through a makeshift obstacle course that included spinning wildly around a hockey stick, after which one mom fell flat on her back. Mom down! She laughed it off and staggered on to the hula-hooping station. A good night's sleep might have helped us all rebound, but from the faces of the women around me on Sunday morning, few of us got one.

Mom's Weekend isn't the real problem -- hey, you bond, you bend, you bounce back -- but the too-muchness of modern motherhood is. Many days, I feel like I'm competing in the mom Olympics, as frenetic as the ones we just watched in London. Those Olympics ended the Sunday night I returned home from Camp, but I was too fried to watch them. I fell into bed, then sat bolt upright a few hours later. I'd forgotten to reserve a rental car, and camp pick-up was only six days away.